Division of Responsibility is the basis of a positive feeding relationship with your child. This handout provides the basics, a bit about establishing boundaries, and an explanation about the overlap with Intuitive Eating.
For more information, a good place to start is Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family. Ellyn Satter also offers mini-books for different age ranges. Her website is ellynsatterinstitute.org — you can find free resources and handouts here.
Ellyn Satter is a registered dietitian and family therapist who created the feeding model of DOR (Division of Responsibility). The Division of Responsibility identifies that the parents’ responsibility is the what, when and where of feeding, and the child determines how much and whether to eat what the parent provides.
How Do I Start?
The Division of Responsibility views children as having the capacity to learn to become competent eaters. DOR is not “eat on demand.” DOR is a structured framework where the parent provides a predictable and reliable framework of meal times and snack times each day, and the child is then able to decide how much to eat during those established meals and snacks. Children need healthy boundaries for appropriate growth and development. As we as parents work toward healing our relationship with food, DOR is the model best used for addressing the family feeding dynamic, in order to raise children who are intuitive eaters.
It’s important to note that this is not something that you try out for a week and see if it “works out.” It’s also not transactional, in the sense that you can’t try this out and say, “I let you eat a plate of cookies last week, and you’re still not eating the foods I want you to, in the quantity I think is appropriate.” The Division of Responsibility is an approach, heavily grounded in research, to build and foster a feeding relationship with your child. It doesn’t happen overnight. First, the current feeding dynamic must change, then there is a period of time while the child truly internalizes that change, understanding on a deeper level that their needs and desires will be honored.
If your child has not been following Ellyn Satter’s model since birth, then there might be a rocky start, and this is to be expected. Your child might not believe that this approach is going to stick around, and they might also need some practice with learning how to self-identify hunger/fullness cues.
What is the Goal?
I encourage you to consider what you are hoping to get out of using DOR. What does the program “working” mean to you? What do “results” mean to you?
Following Ellyn Satter’s model doesn’t mean that your child won’t be a picky eater, or won’t be in a larger body, or won’t be (enter your biggest fear/frustration with your child’s eating). What it means is that you will have a reliable and consistent approach to build a healthy relationship with your child around food, which will also prevent power struggles in the feeding relationship. Trusting the process is a big part of this approach.
A note about “Safe Foods”
There should always be a commonly accepted or familiar food at each meal, which is a food that your child generally accepts. Examples can be bread and butter, cheese and bread, yogurt, hummus and carrots, etc. If your child goes through a meal and only eats their safe food, that is their choice, and that is fine. The fact that it is on the table lets the child know that their needs have been considered. This may eventually give them the confidence to try something new, although, as mentioned, they may stick to their safe food for a while. Balanced nutrition happens over a few days, not at each meal.
This is being considerate without catering. You, the chef, are considerate by including the child’s “safe” food, but are not catering by creating a whole meal experience specific to the child. It’s a family-integrated dynamic where everyone is able to enjoy all of the options together.
If your child has a very limited variety of acceptable foods, please touch base with a pediatric dietitian to rule out Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID).
A note about Desserts
Ellyn Satter says that it takes children a while to learn new foods, but desserts are very easy for them to eat, and may take away motivation to try out new foods. For this reason, she advises that dessert be served in a single child-sized portion, at the same time as the actual dinner. The child can eat the dessert, it is not forbidden or off-limits, but the child is still hungry to try out other nutritious foods. The purpose of serving it at the same time as the dinner is so it loses its specialness, that tempting “forbidden” label.
The child doesn’t eat to fullness and then have to eat past fullness to have dessert later in the meal. The child can choose to eat the dessert before, during, or after the meal. Once the child-sized portion is gone, it’s gone, and it’s up to the parent to lovingly set the limit. To assist children with learning how to eat from plentiful/unlimited portions, snacks are a good time to learn this skill, and snacks can be far enough away from the meal so they don’t compete with the nutrition of dinner (example can be a large plate of cookies with milk), every 2-3 hours.
It’s also important that dessert is not used as a reward for cleaning the plate, or even for eating X bites of another food. Creating a food hierarchy in this way takes away from the child’s ability to listen and trust in their own biological signals. “3 bites of broccoli and you can have ice cream” also teaches the idea that broccoli is something to be endured, rather than enjoyed. It reinforces the idea that vegetables taste bad and ice cream tastes good.
Nap Time Nutrition: Kids and Candy
Nap Time Nutrition: Should My Child be on a Diet (risks of food restriction in adolescence)
Nap Time Nutrition: Is my Child Eating Enough?
Nap Time Nutrition: Is My Child Addicted to Food?
Nap Time Nutrition: The Child who Used to be Adventurous
A note about Parent Limits
As a parent, it is your responsibility to set and hold the limits that you decide for your household. If you want to focus family meals around specific types of foods that you think are nutritious, you are able to do that as long as there are “safe foods” on the table for the child. If you don’t want to serve dessert every night, you don’t have to. If your child wants more dessert than is offered on their portion with dinner, you can lovingly empathize and still hold the limit without shaming. (exp: “I know, I love [enter dessert] too! We can have more on Thursday.”) You can strike up the balance and variety that you want.
It is encouraged that a large variety is offered, as that will assist your child with not thinking of certain foods as “special” or “off-limits,” since your child will be exposed to these foods when out of the house/at school/at social gatherings, etc., and you want them to have practice and balance with these foods as well.
Nap Time Nutrition: Establishing Boundaries with Kids
Nap Time Nutrition: When Parents Aren’t on the Same Page
A note about Intuitive Eating for Kids
This group is a place where women can find support pursuing an Intuitive Eating lifestyle. We are big fans of that. Intuitive Eating is a pathway to healing your relationship with food, pursuing food enjoyment. Through IE, we can focus on reducing the psychology that guides our food choices, choosing instead to listen to our bodies, the only accurate calculator of calories and nutrients that we need.
During childhood, healthy boundaries are necessary for appropriate development. Children thrive with these gentle, but consistent and predictable boundaries. During early development, the parent needs to be in charge of what is served, where it is served, and when it is served. This allows for the appropriate appetite that will lead to the child meeting their nutrition needs. Structure begets predictability. Predictability leads to confidence: confidence that there will be food, that there will be a safe food, and that the meal will be a pleasant experience. This confidence will positively affect other areas of their life as well.
For more information on why DOR is the preferred method for family feeding dynamic, please check out Nap Time Nutrition on Intuitive Eating for Kids: https://youtu.be/4clxwb7UPlE
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Resources from ESI Institute:
For more information: Ellyn Satter website: https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/
Ellyn Satter books: https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/shop/shop/books-and-booklets.html
prepared with help from Dorit Waldman